Adaptation to climate change will be the most significant disruption to our personal and social lives since the last Ice Age. Green living decisions are already affecting the way we construct our homes, get to work, and travel abroad. As our personal habits adjust to include carpooling, recycling, and energy conservation, so too are social traditions like burial rites changing.
Over the last 50 years, there’s been a shift in interment preferences. In the 1960s, only 4% of people preferred cremation. Today, that number has jumped to 44%. Part of this shift is financial – cremation is a fraction of the $8,000 average cost for traditional burials. But people also want their demise to leave less of an environmental impact.
According to a funeral preferences survey by Choice Mutual, 4% of people preferred a natural burial to modern methods. And of that 44% wanted to be cremated, 10% desired their ashes be used to plant a tree. If current trends persist, the days of toxic embalming fluid, costly caskets, and graveside services may soon be behind us. That’s a good thing for the planet.
Overall, people are increasingly conscious of their burial’s impact on the health of the environment. And although cremation is hardly good for the environment (the energy equivalent to a 500-mile car trip!) people still see it as a “greener” alternative. Still, there are burial options available that actually have a low impact on the planet. Here are five eco-friendly burial methods that will keep you sustainable even after death.
1. Natural Burials
Every year in the U.S., traditional burials put 1.6 million tons of concrete and 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid into the ground along with our loved ones. That’s enough formaldehyde, methanol, benzene to fill 17 olympic-sized swimming pools! But natural burials offer effective bereavement without environmental costs. Eco-friendly burials include no chemical embalming or embalming with non-toxic fluids like essential oils. Metal caskets are replaced with those made from biodegradable materials like cardboard or wicker.
Natural burials are perfect for those wanting burial-at-home on private property. Although regulations for home funerals vary by state, most rules allow home burials with specific guidelines. But there are other options. Currently, there are around 93 registered “eco-cemeteries” throughout the country. These areas are typically nature preserves or woodland areas that restrict toxic embalming fluids and ornate granite headstones. Traditional markers are often replaced with planted trees or GPS coordinates to mark gravesites. Natural burials are the green burial choice for those looking for the smallest carbon footprint.
2. Body Farm Donation
One “natural” way to decompose remains and help advance forensic science is to donate your body to a body farm. Donated bodies are left to naturally decompose within the elements to aid the science of criminal investigation. Forensic scientists use the data to increase time-of-death estimates. So, even after death, you could help solve a murder mystery! And since bodies-for-research must decompose naturally, there’s no toxic embalming fluids present or metal or concrete contaminating the soil.
Because these research facilities study human composition, they’re typically located at universities like Tennessee Knoxville’s Forensic Anthropology Center. Donation is usually free if you’re within a specified distance from a facility. Otherwise, your family may be financially responsible for transporting your remains. Body donation likely won’t interfere with organ donation if that’s a final wish. But facilities may not take a body with specific diseases like AIDS or Hepatitis.
Resomation or “water cremation” is a process that uses alkalines, water, and high pressure to break down a corpse into its basic chemical components. A body undergoing resomation is placed in a pressurized tank filled with a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide. Heated to a temperature of 160 °C (320 °F), the body’s components are broken down within four to six hours. Loved ones receive the liquid remains, which can be mixed with other components to form fertilizer for growing plants. Resomation uses one-quarter of the energy of flame-based cremation, producing much less carbon dioxide.
4. Burial At Sea
It may be surprising, but there are still ways to have a Viking funeral. Both scatterings of ashes and full-body burial-at-sea are still allowed in the U.S., although the former is the most common. But as you might think, the process is highly regulated and requires permits. The EPA stipulates that human remains to be placed within three nautical miles from shore and prohibits non-decomposable materials like plastic or metal. And individual states may have their own restrictions. Because of this, families usually hire charter companies that specialize in ocean-side interment.
Actual interment at sea involves water-soluble urns for ashes. For full-body services, memorial services provide biodegradable burial shrouds. But if those who want to do more for the environment, the company Eternal Reefs mixes cremated remains with environmentally-friendly concrete for building underwater reefs and protecting marine environments. Costs for burials-at-sea vary depending on the size of the boat, the time required, and whether you want an attended or unattended service. The cost of cremation is usually not included. But the Department of the Navy offers free services to certain active-duty personnel and their family members.
The Swedish biologist and burial pioneer Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak spent twenty years developing the “most ethical, eco-friendly burial method” she coined Promessa. The process works by mimicking the natural decomposition of our bodies. During the Promessa process, a cadaver is separated from its coffin and cryogenically frozen until crystallized. The body is then broken into small particles through vibration, freeze-dried, and finally prepared for burial. Along the way, toxic metals are removed from the remains, so they’ve kept from entering the soil. Wiigh-Mäsakclaims claims the process can transform human remains into soil within one year.
Promessa is a controversial method and is currently only legal in Sweden, the United Kingdom, and South Korea. But states like Washington and Kansas are looking to Promessa and other “human composting” methods as greener alternatives to direct cremation. So, future burial processes may contain some of these same green steps.
If these five eco-friendly burial options aren’t practical options, consider taking smaller steps to make your burial a green event. Choose a simple wooden casket instead of one made with metal. If you’re being cremated, go with a cardboard casket. There’s no need to burn an expensive coffin, which only releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Also, consider alternatives to embalming fluids that are non-toxic. Dry ice, refrigeration, or direct cremation can also replace the embalming process altogether. Even small steps like these help bring awareness to alternatives, moving burial trends in greener directions.